Is the phone-hacking crisis spreading to other newspapers?

Police have asked for the files from an earlier inquiry into use of private investigator by 31 publi

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The phone-hacking investigation may be spreading to newspapers beyond News International.

The BBC reports today that police asked for files from Operation Motorman, an earlier inquiry into the use of private investigators by newspapers. These files contain details of 4,000 requests for confidential information from a private investigator, made by 300 journalists working for 31 publications. In many cases, this information was obtained illegally.

The biggest offender was not a News International paper, but the Daily Mail, with the 2006 report What price privacy now totting up 952 transactions with private investigators by 58 journalists ("Have I ever countenanced hacking or blagging? No," the Daily Mail's editor Paul Dacre told a committee of MPs last week). The Sunday People was next with 802 transactions and 50 journalists. It was not just the tabloids, either: 103 transactions by four journalists were found at the Observer.

But just how much do those newspapers and journalists named in Operation Motorman need to worry? Firstly, there is a clear difference between phone-hacking -- a criminal offence in law with no public interest defence -- and offences under the data protection act, which can be justified if there is a powerful public interest in finding out that information.

This was the defence that the Observer editor, Roger Alton, offered at the time:

Yes, the Observer has used the services of an outside agency in the past, and while there were strong public interest defences for most of those cases, it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criteria. As a result, I have now taken steps to ensure that no inquiries will be made through outside agencies unless I believe that there is a compelling public interest to do so.

However, as Alton admits, this defence does not apply in all cases, and it certainly does not apply in the majority of the cases discovered in Operation Motorman, as this report by Nick Davies explains:

Operation Motorman led to the information commissioner's staff descending on [private investigator Steve Whittamore's] office in New Milton in March 2003, emerging with a vast cache of handwritten records of requests from journalists, many of which appear to lack any sign of the kind of public interest that would make them legal. The sheer scale of the activity indicates the collapse of the security walls around organisations that are trusted by millions to protect their privacy and the rapacious will of the news media to rush through the gaps. And yet, when the information commissioner obtained the material, it was so short of resources that it approached and warned only a handful of those whose privacy had been compromised even where potential targets for terrorism or other crime were involved.

The report goes on to outline serious breaches of privacy by the police, the DVLA, and mobile phone companies, including some where victims could be put at physical risk, and many where there is no discernable public interest.

It is impossible to know whether the Met does plan to broaden the reach of the current investigation, or whether it has simply asked for the papers so it can look for more information on the News of the World. Huge resources would be required to follow it up, demonstrated by the fact that the findings failed to gain any traction in 2006. The team investigating phone-hacking has been boosted from 45 to 60, but this could be just to deal with the potential 12,800 people who could have been affected. However, other newspapers -- particularly tabloids like the Mail and the Mirror -- are likely to be looking at their own practices, and seriously considering whether they can stand up a public interest defence for their use of illicit means.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.